Stanley Fish: Why Can’t We All Just Get Along

In 1996, Stanley Fish wrote an article for First Things called Why Can’t We All Just Get Along, a link to which was washed up on my beach via Twitter. This fairly dense and densely reasoned essay touches upon a subject of some interest here on this blog: how did our colleges and universities arrive at the disastrous state we’ve reached today? I’m going to have to pick a few of many worthy thoughts to comment on, since this is a blog post and I don’t have a week to research and write a reply. Please read the whole essay, as I am not going to be able to do justice to the full scope of his very interesting argument.  The reasoning here will not be as tight as the subject deserves, for which I apologize to Dr. Fish and my readers. The line of challenge and pursuit is I think important to get out there, however imperfectly.

First, Fish is a college professor, and thus, when he talks about how Americans think, he’s talking about how people in colleges and the penumbra of colleges think. When this battle was being fought back in the 19th and first half of the 20th century, less than 10% of the population attended college; as late as 1945, less than 30% graduated high school. As late as Harry Truman, America could elect as president someone who attended no college – and not feel particularly bad about it.

I mention this because Fish doesn’t concern himself with the downward push of these ideas from the university to the vast bulk of the citizens. That these ideas were cultivated among a small and very self-conscious elite and inflicted on their presumed inferiors is, I think, an important and telling aspect of the process, as is the fundamental difference in mindset between the children and grandchildren of Calvinist Puritans who founded Harvard and a typical American farmer. (Most Americans lived on farms until almost 1900, and most lived in close proximity to farms until maybe 1940.) Employing the sort of reasoning prefered by Fish, it could be said that certain unconscious assumptions made by a farmer and by a Harvard grad would be mutually unintelligible, and thus kill the possibility of free discussion a-birthing. I would add: minds are not that open; minds simply cannot be that open and remain rational. Thus, what is to be imposed is not rationality, but a belief system.

But Fish’s essay is not about how liberal open-mindedness got promulgated and eventually swept the field, but rather is about its dogmatic intolerance. He gets close to the heart of the matter when he notes that no reasoning can begin without premises, and that such premises cannot be the result of reasoning. Thus, he rejects the idea that articles of faith can be judged by their reasonableness, and calls no less a witness than Augustine.

Is this true? That I’m asking this question reveals my own premises, most important of which are that truth matters, is knowable and can be reached or at least approached by reason. Fish calls Augustine to the stand to defend the idea that articles of faith are by their nature unreasonable (or, perhaps, a-reasonable, after the immoral/amoral distinction) and thus sticks to the Platonic side of the pool. By omission of the arguments from the Aristotle/Thomist (deep) end of the pool, Plato stands as the type of the only line of reasoning to be considered.

Like Augustine, Thomas would reject the idea that one could reason his way to the Resurrection (to stick with Fish’s example), but he would consider it completely correct, required, even, to understand that the claim that Christ is Risen is not unreasonable.  One who holds to the Perennial Philosophy would expect all revealed truths to be confirmed by all other truths however arrived at. They would expect all Truth to be One.

A book or two would be required to spell out how, say, knowing the melting point of iron points to the Incarnation. For now, it is enough to insist that rational discussion is not possible if we admit the idea of multiple contradioctory truth into the arena. I contend that the fundamental premise that all truth is one, that no truth arrived at one way can stand unchallenged by a contradictory truth arrived at some other way, is not only tacitly assumed by people with any claim to being reasonable, but is required for any rational discourse whatsoever. Contradictions are not acceptable. Something’s afoot. We must look harder.

Image result for tevye
Horse sense? 

Avram: (gestures at Perchik and Mordcha) He’s right, and he’s right? They can’t both be right.

Tevye: You know… you are also right.

My fundamental objection to Fish’s otherwise sympathetic analysis is his shying away from examining which premises support the activity of rational discourse, and which defeat it or, rather, preclude it. In this regard, I find it odd that Marx gets mentioned indirectly and in passing once, and Hegel not at all. Yet I think it indisputable that the premises of Hegel and Marx have replaced the Enlightenment premises as expressed by Jefferson and company as the foundation upon which the current ideas of open-minded discussion, so called, are built.

And I think Fish agrees, on some level. Discussing George Marsden’s The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief , Fish says

The answer has many components, including the Jeffersonian project of softening sectarian aggressiveness and establishing a general religion of peace, reason, and morality, the identification of common sense philosophy with Christian morality within the assumption that each supported the other, the rise of the cult of the expert whose skills and authority were independent of his character or religious faith, and the substitution for the imperative of adhering to an already-revealed truth the imperative of continuing to search for a truth whose full emergence is located in an ever-receding future.

This last was particularly important because if truth was by definition larger and more inclusive than our present horizons declared it to be, obedience to traditional norms and values was no longer a virtue, but a fault, and a moral fault at that.

“The higher truth was an ever progressing ideal toward which the human community . . . always moved, yet never reached. Since truth was by definition always changing, the only thing ultimately sacred was the means of pursuing it. No religious or other dogmatic claim could be allowed to stand in its way.”

It is not the business of a university, declared Charles Eliot of Harvard, “to train men for those functions in which implicit obedience is of the first importance. On the contrary, it should train men for those occupations in which self-government, independence, and originating power are preeminently needed.” (Or, in Satan’s more succinct formulation, “self-begot, self-raised.”)

We see here Hegel’s idea of the Spirit unfolding itself through history, an idea that conquered Harvard in the early 19th century, and infused all top-down educational efforts from that point forward. This idea – that men are not given to know divine truths unless and until the Spirit comes to know them in concrete History – held great appeal to Protestant and recently Protestant minds. Rather than an indictment, they could reframe the radical fracturing of Protestantism over time and space as the necessarily messy workings of the Spirit, and the Church’s claim to being the repository and defender of unchanging Truth to be the height of ignorance and hubris.


Princeton’s Francis Patton declared that “the rationality or rather the reasonableness of a belief is the condition of its credibility.” That is, you believe it because reason ratifies it, a view Augustine would have heard with horror, one that John Webster, writing in 1654, rejects as obviously absurd. “But if man gave his assent unto, or believed the things of Christ . . . because they appear probable . . . to his reason, then would his faith be . . . upon the rotten basis of human authority.” By the end of the nineteenth century, human authority has been put in the place of revelation; or rather human authority, now identified with the progressive illumination afforded by reason, has become the vehicle of revelation and of a religion that can do very nicely without any strong conception of personal deity.

This realization was not instantaneous nor universal by any means. Up until the early 20th century, it was not uncommon for various Protestant leaders (Francis Patton, for example) to cry anathema on other Protestants and Christian sects for the heresy of disagreeing with established dogmas. These firebrands still believed that there were revealed truths that *required* our assent if we were to be saved. Since then, and especially over the last 5 or 6 decades, it has become moot to wonder what an American Episcopalian or Lutheran, say, would have to do to be a heretic by the lights of the leaders of their own denominations. Still, among the sheep, there are those who believe that it is possible to be wrong – but, practically, among the leadership? I’ve seen no evidence.

Once Christianity fades entirely and Hegel’s Spirit is laughed off the stage, Marx substitutes his strangely efficacious History into the Spirit’s slot (it fits once Hegel is flipped on his head). Marx renounces Hegel’s considered modesty: we, in the person of Marx, no longer need to wait for Spirit/History to unfold itself, it has unfolded itself to the end! We know where we’re going – and the only foolishness is to be on the wrong side.

Hegel considers what he calls ‘propositional reason,’ which is what Fish is calling simply reason in this essay, to be useful to the little people such as scientists and mathematicians, but of no use to real philosophers doing the hard thinking of real philosophy. For such lofty person pursuing their high and lonely destinies, the law of noncontradiction does not apply, neither do they attempt to work from true premises using valid logic to new states of knowledge. No, like Freud attacking his critics from within his theory (they only disagree because they are repressed, you see), reason is based on some form of unassailable enlightenment. It doesn’t have to be consistent; it doesn’t have to make sense. In any case, it is beyond the reach of mere logical discussion.

The attentive reader will note that such premises are not only as dogmatic and more than anything claimed by Calvin or Luther, but that they serve at least as well the purpose of ending discourse, or hope of discourse. You either get it, or you don’t.

It’s not like people didn’t notice, even at the time:

In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, Yale’s Noah Porter scoffed at the supposed neutrality and evenhandedness of secular educational theory, which, he pointed out, was its theology: “The question is not whether the college shall or shall not teach theology, but what theology it shall teach”theology according to . . . Moses and Paul or according to Buckle and Draper.” By the beginning of this century it was all too evident which of these directions had been taken by American education. In tones recently echoed by conservative polemicists, the editors of Cosmopolitan magazine complained in 1909 that

In hundreds of classrooms it is being taught daily that the decalogue is no more sacred than a syllabus; that the home as an institution is doomed; that there are no absolute evils . . . that the change of one religion to another is like getting a new hat; that moral precepts are passing shibboleths; that conceptions of right and wrong are as unstable as styles of dress.

“The neutrality we have,” thundered William Jennings Bryan in 1923, “is often but a sham; it carefully excludes the Christian religion but permits the use of the schoolroom for the destruction of faith and for the teaching of materialistic doctrines.” From a quite different perspective, Walter Lippmann agreed: “Reason and free inquiry can be neutral and tolerant only of those opinions which submit to the test of reason and free inquiry.” What this means, as Marsden points out, is that “two irreconcilable views of truth and education were at issue”; but of course the issue was never really joined, because the liberal establishment thought of itself as already reconciled to everything and anything and therefore was unable to see how exclusionary its policy of radical in clusion really was: “Groups that were excluded, such as Marxists and fundamentalists, often raised the point that they were being excluded by liberal dogmatism, but they were seldom heard.”

That they were not heard is hardly surprising, since what they were saying was that a state of “warfare” existed, and warfare ”deep conflict over basic and nonnegotiable issues” was precisely what liberalism was invented to deny; and it manages that denial by excluding from the tolerance it preaches anyone who will not pledge allegiance to the mimicry of tolerance.

The point being missed: an Hegelian or Marxist will very easily “pledge allegiance to the mimicry of tolerance.” They have already done it. They’ve been doing it for a century. They are doing it now, most notably at Berkeley. War is Peace. Speech is Aggression. Beatings and Intimidation are Freedom. Gramsci and Alinsky would nod approvingly.

On an intellectual level, we must challenge the premises that preclude rational discussion. While on a strictly logical basis, Fish is correct that premises cannot be chosen rationally – you have to have premises to reason in the first place. But the logical outcomes of our premises can be examined, and contradictions can invalidate certain combinations of premises as being incompatible. Thus, I cannot defend open-minded discussion without some sort of assumption that truth matters, that truth is knowable at least to some degree, and that words carry meanings that can be communicated between interlocutors.

It is not merely a question of this or that indifferent premise being enforced because we like it better for pre-rational reasons, so to speak. Some premises support conversation and some defeat it. Any society worth defending supports the free expression of ideas. To do so, it must hold up to scorn and refuse to enshrine in law or custom any premises that defeat communication  by their nature.

Things have only gotten worse since Dr. Fish wrote this essay. When we allow thugs to shut down speech, when we are ‘tolerant’ of views that defeat the very idea of tolerance, when we cede the field to those who claim the very idea of  logical consistency is irrational, we are not furthering this grand experiment. We are less, not more, free.


Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

2 thoughts on “Stanley Fish: Why Can’t We All Just Get Along”

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